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USA Hockey encouraging cross-ice youth games

by Jon Lane

"From the eyes of an 8-year-old, a full-sized hockey rink looks a lot bigger."

Those words opened a USA Hockey video designed to educate and deliver a reality check. The game is hard enough for grown men and women on an NHL-size 200-by-85 foot rink. For children 8 years old and under, it's akin to skating from New York to Los Angeles and guarding a net the size of One World Trade Center.

The goal of USA Hockey's American Development Model is to encourage cross-ice games at the 8-and-under level nationwide in lieu of competing on full-size rinks. Those who played a pick-up game recently on Dollar Lake in Eagle River, Wis., were provided a harsh perspective as to why.

In town for the annual pond hockey national championships USA Hockey runs for the adult program, a group of adults were placed on a 310-by-130 foot hockey rink scaled to simulate what a child experiences when they play hockey on an NHL-size rink. Conceived by ADM, the idea was to show how a full-sized sheet of ice looks through a child's eyes and to issue a reminder of why it's tough to be a kid playing the game.

The ADM came up with the dimensions based on the size difference between an average 8-year-old and an average adult male. The result was a lot of huffing and puffing well before game's end, captured in a video perspective of what a child playing on a full-size surface feels like for adults.

Other sports downsize the playing surface to dimensions designed to allow children to play the game in a more realistic fashion. In youth hockey, however, many rinks aren't the right proportion so children are required to do things they're not physically or mentally capable of doing.

"Little League Baseball doesn't play on the same-sized field as the [New York] Yankees play on," American Development Model technical director Ken Martel said. "None of this is rocket science. We've been really, really slow to adopt it into our sport because it's not convenient. And when you build an ice rink, the facility is this size, it's a standard NHL-sized building, which, I guess, isn't really even true in our country because there are rinks of different sizes and there have been even in the NHL in the past. The old Boston Garden wasn't exactly 200-by-85."

USA Hockey launched the American Development Model in January 2009 to provide a blueprint for optimal athlete development. In this case the goal is to generate continued visibility to help people understand why a smaller ice surface is better for youth hockey players and their development. The experience recommended by USA Hockey includes no full-time goalies, 12 or fewer players per team, station-based practices and cross-ice games.

"The playing surface has an effect on how the game is played," Martel said. "If it has that kind of effect on NHL players, what do you think it has on little kids?"

Those invited to the simulated skate left convinced. As shown on the video, there was too much time in open space where players barely touched the puck, and when they did long passes were easy to intercept. It also was hard to communicate because the players were too far from one another. As one out-of-breath adult put it, the experience was "unforgiving."

"For me it was every single person that they interviewed, every single person that came over and tried the rink, I didn't run into one person that didn't get it," Martel said. "For me that was the defining thing. When they experienced it, every single one of them went, 'Oh yeah, this makes sense.'"

The hope is the change would encourage children to keep playing the game. Those who aren't involved in play end up disengaged, with some leaving the game.

"If you make this playing surface and the equipment the right size for kids, it's easier for them to play the game like it's supposed to be played," Martel said. "There's more enjoyment for them, there's more success, everybody's involved. Not only is it good for their development, but we found out it's a great retention tool."


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